When I was a kid, one of my best friends had a swimming pool.
Her parents were generous about allowing the neighbor children to come over to swim. But my friend’s mom was quick to admonish us never to pee in the pool.
She told us that urine would turn a purple color, and the purple trail would follow us around the pool, identifying the guilty party.
As an adult, I’ve often thought about how convenient it would be if a purple trail or a warning light or some other obvious marker identified people you need to stay away from.
You walk down the street and see a light flashing over someone’s head: “Warning: I am toxic and manipulative.”
If we knew from the get-go that someone had these traits, we wouldn’t be fooled by their charms, neediness, passive-aggressive behaviors, and guilt trips.
We could just walk right past them and find other people to associate with who don’t leave a trail of connivance in their wake.
Unfortunately, no such clear warning system exists. Even if it did, we sometimes don’t have the option to avoid these people. They might be family members, work associates, or members of our social circles whose paths we must cross for better or worse.
Manipulative people also have an uncanny way of making us believe that they are charming, supportive, and kind — until they aren’t. By that time, we are caught up in their web of subtle deceit, mind games, and control.
I’m sure you’ve experienced this in a relationship before, and it can take a while before you wake up and smell the coffee. Over time, you know things are starting to feel weird, but you just can’t put your finger on it.
You might notice that you’re uncomfortable, irritated, or confused in the presence of this person. There’s a toxicity that lingers in the air when you spend time with him or her.
Extricating yourself from a relationship with a manipulative person can be excruciating, especially if you attempt to be gracious and mature about it. You will simply not be met with anything but more manipulation and attempts to exploit your kindness.
You’ve heard the expression, “The best defense is a good offense,” and I fully endorse this strategy when it comes to manipulative people.
They may not leave a purple trail behind them or flash a warning sign, but they DO show their true colors if you know what to look for.
Are you living with an emotional abuser? Click here to get your free Emotional Abuse Test. Find out your personal score.
If you want to avoid the pain and suffering of entangling yourself in a relationship with a manipulator, you need to be proactive.
Here are 10 devious tactics of manipulative people you need to watch out for:
1. They hone in on your weaknesses.
Manipulative people are adept at finding your Achilles heel and ferreting out your insecurities. They are keen observers of your behavior and will ask probing questions to uncover any dark secrets or flaws you might possess.
They might also cozy up to you because you are sensitive, warm, and generous — qualities they know they can twist for their own purposes. Manipulative people view your kind heart as a weakness, not a positive character trait.
Initially it might feel flattering that this person is taking such an interest in you. They might offer words of sympathy and support to divert you from their ulterior motives.
And that brings me to the next tactic.
2. They exploit your weaknesses and your generosity.
Once this person has discovered your soft underbelly, he or she will come in for the kill. Manipulative people will use your weaknesses to bend you to their will.
They might covertly threaten to blackmail you by intimating that they possess embarrassing information about you. They are masters at using your insecurities as a tool to force you to give up some part of yourself to serve their own interests.
Or they will use the private knowledge and confidences you’ve shared against you should you try to push back or take a stand against their behavior.
Knowing how kind and generous you are, a manipulator will ask too much of you and take advantage of your time and resources.
3. They use guilt trips.
One of the favorite tactics of a controlling manipulator is the guilt trip. “If you really cared about me, you wouldn’t leave and go to that party tonight.” “A real friend would come over right now and help me clean the house.”
This tactic works especially well on people who are insecure or people pleasers, and the manipulator often seeks out this type of person because he or she knows they are easy prey.
But manipulators use guilt trips unsparingly and indiscriminately, even with those who might call their bluff. Manipulators like to divert responsibility away from themselves, and they take a weird pleasure in making others feel bad or uncomfortable.
If you call out a manipulator on their guilt-tripping shenanigans, he will act indignant and offended. You are the one who isn’t stepping up to help. You are the selfish, unkind friend, wife, child, or associate.
4. They play the victim.
Guilt trips are just one of the many ways a manipulator will play the victim. A manipulator will do this not only to get his or her way, but also to gain attention.
They will always “one-up” you if you share a challenge or problem. Your pain is never as great as theirs. Your difficult childhood doesn’t hold a candle to the manipulator’s.
Most of these manipulative people learn very early in life that if they act helpless, wounded, and incapable, they can get others to step up and take action. They can be excused for bad behavior or laziness because they are victims and “just couldn’t help it.”
5. They bend the truth.
Manipulative people are masters at obfuscation and half truths. They will twist their own words to lend an element of doubt or confusion to a situation.
They will leave out important information, or pretend they meant one thing when they said another. “Oh I didn’t know our lunch appointment was definite.” “You didn’t tell me not to share the information. You just said it was personal.”
A good manipulator knows how to cover their tracks and confuse their language to the extent that you begin to doubt yourself. “Maybe I didn’t say that.” “I thought we confirmed our lunch date, but I guess we didn’t.”
The manipulator can say it all with a straight face and a calm voice — better than any two-faced politician. Once they see you questioning yourself, they know they have you under their thumb.
6. They make subtle digs.
Manipulators won’t overtly degrade you or call you names. They have much more understated ways of getting under your skin and making you feel bad.
They will say things that might seem innocuous on the surface, maybe even helpful or kind, but you can feel the negative, hurtful undertones behind the comment.
These passive aggressive comments and subtle digs feel like bee stings when they occur, but they have the cumulative effect of a slow-killing poison.
“Oh I see you decided to wear that dress after all.” “Do you need help with the bills? I know how hard math is for you.” “How do you feel about your daughter not getting into that college she wanted to go to?”
If your manipulator knows you well, she will use what she knows to find the most painful place to stick the knife in without appearing to be cruel or unkind — but with full knowledge of exactly how it’s impacting you.
When you suggest they are being hurtful, they will deny, deny, deny. “You are being way too sensitive. I didn’t mean it that way at all. I’d never try to hurt you.”
7. They have childish reactions.
Manipulators are childish bullies at heart. Perhaps they didn’t have mature relationship skills modeled for them as children. Or maybe they have a touch of narcissism and have figured out that using and abusing people gets them what they want.
Either way, they seem to be stuck in the early teen years when they don’t get their way. They may pout, sulk, cry, whine to others, give you the cold shoulder, or act impulsively.
The emotional maturity of these controlling, manipulative people is typically quite low. If you respond to their childish behaviors with maturity and calm, it can make them lash out even more in frustration and anger.
More than anything, they want to get your attention and cause you so much distress and discomfort that you’ll acquiesce to their demands.
8. They blame others.
Part of a manipulator’s victim game is blaming other people for any problems, failures, or moral lapses.
The manipulator can masterfully point the finger at anyone but themselves, even when it’s painfully obvious who is at fault.
Even when they are caught red-handed doing or saying something wrong or inappropriate, there’s always someone else who made them do or say it.
Or they suggest everyone else is seeing the situation incorrectly, and that only they, the manipulator, understands the “real” truth.
Manipulators will take credit for everything that goes right in their lives or around them, but they refuse to take any responsibility when things go wrong.
9. They lack boundaries.
Manipulative people do not respect your boundaries. As long as they don’t meet much resistance, they will continue to say and do things that cross the line. Sometimes they cross the line even when you ask them to stop.
They may take up too much of your time, show up uninvited, ask to borrow money or things repeatedly, insert themselves into your life inappropriately, and do many other things that are out of line with your values and personal limits.
Certainly they lack respect for you by doing this, especially if you have been clear on your boundaries, and they cross them anyway.
Manipulators don’t seem to care that they might offend or bother you. In fact, they feel offended that you aren’t immediately available to meet all of their needs.
10. They are masters at “triangulation.”
Manipulators tend to love drama and will often use friends, family, and work associates to foster it.
They know how to set up scenarios and interactions that result in intrigue, rivalries, or jealousy. They seem to enjoy disharmony and chaos, and will go to great lengths to encourage and promote it.
They will often gossip about other people you know in front of you or will say unkind things about you to your friends and family. Stirring the pot is an art form for manipulative people, and once turmoil has descended, they will sit back and enjoy the show.
You and your friends or family members are left to clean up the mess — or you are suddenly left with no one except the manipulator by your side.
If you allow a manipulator to remain in your life, you will most surely see the quality of your life diminish. This person will infect you with their toxic words and behaviors to the point that you lose self-esteem and inner peace.
You may be forced to spend time with a manipulator who is a work associate or family member, but you can minimize the time you spend with them and stand up for yourself as often as possible.
Call out the behaviors when you recognize them. Don’t engage in verbal entanglements. Demand in no uncertain terms that they respect your boundaries. You do have power in these situations.
But the best way to deal with a manipulator is to never get involved with one. Armed with knowledge and awareness, you can spot these hurtful and damaging behaviors before you invite a manipulative person into your life.